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Spoils in divorce wars

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Custody of children a sensitive issue in contested cases.

By Barbara J. Risman

Today’s families are complex, and so is the issue of child custody when marriages end in divorce.

Attorneys, nonprofits, social service agencies and others who work with parents during divorce need to be sensitive to the variety of post-marital family possibilities, and help parents to decide which will be the best for them, and for their children.

Two alternative models can provide guidelines for custody decisions.

Marital roles can serve as a blueprint for divorce, or parental involvement can be maximized.

In the parental-role model, the actual pattern of parental behavior during marriage is the guideline for organizing childrearing after divorce.

This model provides the most stability in family functioning for the child. A checklist with questions such as who was responsible for what care, and what percentage of financial support during marriage, can be used to determine post-marital responsibilities.

In the model that aims to maximize parental involvement, the guideline for organizing post-marital childrearing is to maximize both mothers’ and fathers’ close relationship with the child.

Here, both parents are presumed to be equally responsible for the daily caretaking and the financial needs of their children after divorce with joint physical custody.

Research suggests that fathers can learn the skills necessary for child care, even if they have never done much before.

But joint physical custody also presumes that mothers are able to earn an adequate living for themselves and their children after divorce.

This is true for some but certainly not all women.

Children of divorce often move to more dangerous neighborhoods and lower-quality schools, and then move again, with frequent geographic mobility decreasing their community involvement.

Whatever physical custody decisions are chosen, professionals should try assure that they do not negatively affect the child’s standard of living and geographical stability any more than is absolutely necessary.

Neither model provides us with one easy answer, but helping parents understand the variety of post-marital family options, and how to balance their strengths and weaknesses, is an important function that professionals can offer to the families they work with.


Barbara J. Risman is an Alumni Distinguished Research Professor of Sociology in the College of Humanities and Social Sciences and an Extension faculty member in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences at N.C. State University, and is affiliated with the university’s Institute for Nonprofits.

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